Ala. city gives more money to private EMS service

"You've got to have an EMS provider in your city, and right now we're still trying to do what we can to support it," councilman Mike Henderson said

By Ben Nunnally
The Anniston Star

OXFORD, Ala. — The City Council agreed to give more money to Oxford Emergency Medical Services on Monday morning, the third time it has done so this year.

Three members of the City Council — minus Council President Chris Spurlin and Councilman Phil Gardner, who were not present — unanimously voted to appropriate $167,677 from the city general fund for Oxford EMS in a brief, called meeting.

Councilman Steven Waits said Oxford EMS came to the city
Councilman Steven Waits said Oxford EMS came to the city "with a financial need," which he said compelled the city council to help. (Photo/Oxford EMS Facebook)

In January the council held another called meeting in which it gave $113,281 to the service, which has existed in some form in the city since 1970, with its current incarnation founded in 2009. Another $65,000 was given in August. Monday’s spending was the first money appropriated in the 2020 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

Councilman Steven Waits, who presided in place of Spurlin, said after the meeting that Oxford EMS came to the city “with a financial need,” which he said compelled the City Council to help.

“One of our greatest priorities is to ensure that we provide not only adequate but excellent public safety,” Waits said. “We’ve invested a tremendous amount into the Fire Department, into the Police Department, and it’s something our citizens have come to expect. It’s something they deserve.”

Money given to the company over the years has helped improve its average emergency response times, he said, though he didn’t have specific numbers on hand. The service also expanded to add a second station in Bynum, he said, widening its coverage area.

However, the EMS service is a private company, not an arm of the city. Waits deferred questions about the service’s budget and operations to Oxford EMS administrators. Attempts to reach Director Ricky Howell were unsuccessful Monday.

An attorney for the service, Mark White, told Circuit Court Judge Brian Howell in 2017 that public money accounted for about 15 percent of the company’s budget, during one of a handful of legal battles the company has fought in the last few years.

Councilman Mike Henderson, talking by phone Monday, estimated that the city had paid $600,000 to the company last year. He said he thought the company’s requests for money might reach about that much during this fiscal year, too. The overall operation isn’t performing at the level it needs to, Henderson said.

“Probably if you poll most of the residents of Oxford they would think Oxford EMS is part of the city, but it’s not,” he said. “We don’t want to see them fail, we don’t want to see anybody lose their jobs or anything like that, but we can’t keep absorbing the losses they’re having.”

He said the council has been told by the service’s board that the Bynum location is struggling, with the cost of staffing the location outpacing income from emergency calls. Also floated as a disadvantage in conversation, Henderson said, is that Oxford has no hospital of its own, so ambulances are routed to Anniston’s Regional Medical Center. Representatives have previously told the council that the service doesn’t charge for calls that turn out to be false alarms, which makes some calls a complete loss. He said that fees from the company’s legal battles may have sapped its reserves.

The council has discussed alternatives, Henderson said, like forming a city-owned ambulance service, or inviting another ambulance service to work in the area.

The FY2020 budget already has $170,700 set aside for the agency. Of that total, $100,000 is earmarked for repair and maintenance — whether for vehicles or other property is unstated — and another $70,000 for gas and oil, with the last $700 for telephone service.

The prior year’s budget nixed budgeted appropriations altogether, while the FY2018 budget provided $196,000, including $120,000 paid out over the year, with the rest divided amongst maintenance, oil and phone service. That was a cut from prior years, which topped out at $295,000 in the budget.

Henderson has been critical of the heavy investment of public money in a private organization in the past, but he said that the City Council provided money to Oxford EMS in good faith that it could help get the business back on track.

“You’ve got to have an EMS provider in your city,” Henderson said, “and right now we’re still trying to do what we can to support it.”


©2019 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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